Municipal Light Plant elections loom large

‘Local utilities’ oversee 14% of state energy mix

WHEN GOV. CHARLIE BAKER signed the Next Generation Roadmap bill, Massachusetts became legally required to reduce its emissions 50 percent by 2030, and be net-zero by 2050. The backbone of achieving those mandates is electrifying our transportation and building systems and powering these systems with clean electricity. But 14 percent of our state’s energy mix is under the control not of the state or utilities, but local Municipal Light Plant boards (MLPs). Never heard of an MLP board? You’re not alone.

 In 41 communities across Massachusetts, these little-known governance bodies have significant mandates. They are responsible for choosing their town’s sources of energy, supplying customers with power, setting electric rates, and implementing energy efficiency programs (the state’s Mass Save program is not available in MLP towns). Comprised of just three to five members, even one effective climate leader can have profound impacts on our state’s ability to combat the climate crisis.

 Typically, the local elections for these boards are held on various dates throughout the spring, resulting in some of the lowest voter turnout of any elections in Massachusetts. In other words, a small group of voters chooses an even smaller group of board members who make big decisions about whether their town – and our state – is successful in its efforts to combat climate change. And these MLPs are lagging behind the rest of the Commonwealth in integrating clean energy. According to the MA Climate Action Network, not one MLP was meeting the Renewable Portfolio Standard as of 2017. With the signing of the Roadmap bill, all MLP towns must now comply with the state emission reduction mandates and implement climate mitigation measures.    

 It’s time for these municipalities to take action, and thankfully, committed local residents from across Massachusetts are stepping up to lead. Lisa Wolf, a teacher from Marblehead was elected to her town’s MLP last year, and was instrumental in getting the board to commit to net-zero emissions. A new member of the Hull Municipal Light Plant, small business owner Jacob Vaillancourt, recognized the vulnerability of his coastal town to climate change and worked with his board to increase the resiliency of their energy supply. This year, the Environmental League of MA Action Fund endorsed seven candidates who are running for their MLP Board to bring meaningful changes like these to their towns.

Poll after poll has shown that voters across Massachusetts want their elected officials to implement climate policies that match the urgency and scope of the climate crisis. The barriers to progress are a simple lack of awareness that these boards matter — and that they are on the ballot this spring. Too often, voters do not understand the role that MLP boards can play in reducing emissions and protecting our environment.   Many of these elections see 12-15 percent turnout. Increasing turnout this year could have major impacts on each MLP community and the state overall. Recent legislation has allowed for mail-in ballots through June 30 for all elections. The ELM Action Fund is supporting get-out-the-vote campaigns in MLP communities to inform voters why this election matters and how to participate. 

 A record number of voters showed up last November to send a message that we need elected officials at all levels that invest in clean energy, fight climate change, and support a green and just economy. While these elections have less fanfare, they could be just as consequential in our state’s fight against climate change. From Middleborough to Hingham to Princeton, get out and vote.

Clare Kelly is the executive director of the Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund.